How baby boomers can manage younger workers

June 21, 2011 | By Courtney Subramanian

With a new wave of college graduates applying for jobs, companies are looking for the most effective ways to manage these young workers — but some managers are having a difficult time bridging the generation gap, according to a recent survey.

Some managers don’t understand what younger workers really want, said Sanja Licina, a senior director for talent intelligence and consulting at Career Builder, a job search firm.

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For instance, 30% of people aged 21 to 31 said “meaningful work” is the most important measure of a successful career, but 48% of hiring managers said they think this generation measures career success by high pay, according to a survey of 500 people age 21 to 31 and 523 managers who work with that age group. The survey was conducted by Harris Interactive for the Career Advisory Board, a panel of job experts set up by DeVry University.

Only 11% of hiring managers said young employees count “meaningful work” as the No. 1 hallmark of a successful career.

“Millennials are now saying that meaningful work is most important, above and beyond salary,” said Licina, who is a member of the Career Advisory Board. “And managers are not as fast to catch onto that shift.” The generation born between 1982 and 2001 is often called the Millennial Generation, although the precise years defining the group vary.

Neil Howe, author of “Millennials in the Workplace: Human Resource Strategies for a New Generation,” said a common characteristic of millennials is that they think they’re special — and that’s something managers should acknowledge.

“I often tell managers there’s nothing wrong with them thinking they’re special,” said Howe, who’s been studying the Millennial Generation for 20 years. Managers should embrace that self-confidence and tell Millennials they expect special things from them, he said.

Licina said it’s all about phrasing feedback carefully. “They should be saying something like, ‘I’m so excited that you have a lot of strengths and a lot of confidence and I’m looking forward to you showcasing that in this project,’” she said.

Rebecca Ray, a managing director at The Conference Board, a nonprofit business research group, said that companies that want to engage young people successfully should provide an employee development program, and encourage managers to use coaching and feedback.

Tips for managers

Experts said the following guidelines are important to remember when hiring new graduates:

1. Give comprehensive feedback

Open dialogue between managers and young workers is important, Licina said. At Career Builder, employees frequently sit down with managers to set and discuss goals and to learn about opportunities available to them, she said.

Others agreed. Millennials “don’t understand the social distance between bosses and employees,” Howe said. “They want that position of loyalty and trust and they’re looking for feedback.”

2. Offer training and development programs

Companies that crack the code to successful employee engagement put a lot of effort into coaching and programs that show employees there’s room for growth, Ray said.

“Not only do they need to have a robust formal program but they also have to make sure employees understand it and make sure they know the program is there,” Ray said. “It’s not so much career path as it is career opportunity.”

Licina agreed. Her research shows that a lot of employees are unaware of company incentives for growth, including working with universities for educational advancement opportunities.

3. Create a team environment

A characteristic of the Millennial Generation is the ability to work well in teams, according to Howe, who’s consulted on Millennials for the U.S. military as well as private industry.

Millennials stay in touch with their generation through social media and instant messaging. Most decisions are made through consensus with their friends and family, Howe said, and managers should recognize and use that quality to enhance productivity.

Multigenerational teams allow employees to leverage different strengths and learn from each other, Licina said, bridging the gap between generations.

Tips for young workers

For recent graduates, here are a couple of tips to remember in new work environments.

1. Recognize your employers are different

Most managers are baby boomers or Gen-Xers (those born between the mid-1960s and about 1980). It’s important to recognize they handle situations differently, Howe said.

“Millennials need to recognize this isn’t how people have acted since the beginning of time,” he said, noting that Gen-Xers have grown up in down economies and are more attuned to a “free agent” or independent lifestyle.

Realize the traits of employers and use their characteristics to better understand the relationship, he said.

2. Build relationships

Though employers may be older and different in how they approach things, Licina said it’s important to get to know people on an individual basis.

“Becoming a person and not just being a Millennial,” Licina said. “What are some things you can learn from and what can you do to really be a star.”

Licina also advised young people to pay attention to their industry and the news, so that their conversations with employers will be substantive. 

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